Martial arts is believed to have evolved from Southern India, with Kalaripayattu, which originated in Kerala during the 13th century, taking the name of the oldest martial art form on the planet. Kalaripayattu is about learning to use the body in every possible way. Exercise and agility makes up the majority of this art form, but not entirely. Kalari chikilsa and Kalari marma, which involves knowing the secrets of the body and ways to heal the body quickly to keep the body in a regenerative mode, requires understanding the body and the energy systems. The sport or ‘art’ of Kalaripayattu is taught to students at a Kalari or school. The techniques have been passed down through generations, through palm leaf manuscripts.
Prof A. Sreedhara Menon in his ‘A Survey of Kerala History’ talks about how in medieval Kerala, every desam (locality) had a kalari. Kalaripayattu was popular in medieval Kerala. Back then, both boys and girls received training. There are several stories of origin behind Kalaripayattu. Some sources suggest that the martial art form had been developed by Agastya Muni, a short, diminutive traveller, who learnt to fight to protect himself from the wildlife. It is said that when these travellers tried to cross the Himalayas, they were forced to fight men, and thus, the form began to evolve from a crouching kind of martial art to a “standing up” kind of martial art. The art naturally transformed itself from a way to avoid becoming somebody’s dinner, to something that can be adopted to kill. You will see this transformation from Kalari to Karate.
Other sources suggest that Parashuram, a disciple of Lord Vishnu, is the founder of Kalaripayattu. It is believed that he taught one school, which flowed from the North of Malabar, and Agastya Muni’s school came from the South. Parashuram’s method used all kinds of weapons– hand weapons, throwing weapons and more– but Agastya Muni’s martial art grew without any weapons, it was all hand.
The earliest written evidence of this art form dates back to the Sangam literature of about the third century B.C and second century B.C. It is believed that the combat techniques of the Sangam period acted as precursors to Kalaripayattu. It is believed that the northern form of Kalaripayattu that is practised today came into existence in the 11th century, in the wake of the strife between the Tamil Kingdoms of Cheras and Cholas.
When the British came to India, they began to discourage the sport, after they sensed the danger it posed them. The prudish sensibilities that they brought with them pushed women out of battle grounds. Restrictions on carrying weapons pushed the swords and shields into cold storages. In 1920s the art form began gaining popularity again, but it was only much after Independence that things returned to its normal state. Kalaripayattu is also linked with the history of Kerala’s most popular dance form, Kathakali. It is often said that Kathakali practitioners, who were also Kalaripayattu performers, tended to be better dancers.
Seventy-five-year-old Meenakshi Raghavan is the oldest known practitioner of this martial art form. She began training when she was only 7 years old, and today she runs her own kalari where she trains all – young and old, male and female. More than a third of the students are girls, aged between six and 26. You will find her clad in a sari, holding a shield and sword, in a pose similar to that of a tiger, ready for a fight.
Respectfully addressed by her disciples as Meenakshi Amma (‘amma’ means mother), she is a formidable presence with the ability to win a fight against a man half her age and twice her stature. The media dubbed her Samurai Amma for this very reason. Her school Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam is located in Vadakara near Caliciut, Kerala, and trains almost 150-170 students every year. Rooted in history and tradition, Samurai Amma doesn’t charge her students for teaching them. The students offer a dakshina, which is a small token or donation made to the teacher, when they leave the school.
Many of her students have gone on to become teachers themselves. She conducts classes every year, from June to September, teaching her patrons the Northern style of Kalaripayattu, including uzhichil (massages for aches and pains). When the school closes, she takes part in performances. In a year, on average, she takes part in around 60 shows. Earlier this year, the Indian government decided to award her with a Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award.
She took up the sport at a young age so that she could gain more flexibility to aid her dancing. However, under her teacher Mr. V. P. Raghavan Gurukkal, she found her love for the sport. The school that Meenakshi Amma runs today, was the creation of Raghavan Gurukkal. Shunned from joining a local kalari because he was from the backward Thiyya/Ezhava community, he went ahead and built his own school in defiance. Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam was set up in 1949 with the aim of creating a place where anyone who had a passion for the martial art could join. At the age of 17, she married her guru. At the time, women, especially married women, did not enjoy the freedom to take part in recreational exercise, much less Kalaripayattu. However, her marriage to someone who loved and practised the sport, allowed her the freedom to continue training. It is ironic that Raghavan Master ever faced discrimination, since the oral folklore of north Kerala, called the Vaddakan Paatu (Northern Ballads) is filled with tales of Kalaripayattu champions, many of whom are the Thiyya/Ezhava warriors of Puthooram tharavadu.
When her husband passed away in 2009, she took over as the teacher, and continues to teach and learn the art. Her four children and grandchildren have all stayed true to the family tradition by becoming practitioners of Kalaripayattu. Since the sport is not considered to be of a competitive nature, it has been ignored by the government for years. Meenakshi Amma, however, says that Kalaripayattu is one of the few forms that teaches people to not only strengthen their bodies, but also their mind, which leads her to believe that the art of Kalaripayattu can never be erased.